Were the Irish who started arriving in the 1840s America’s first immigrants?

Many others had made the journey before them, including prehistoric migrants across the Bering Strait and the Ulstermen who had been settling the American backcountry since the mid-18th century. But the Catholic, Gaelic “native” Irish of the Great Famine era were the first arrivals consistently labeled “immigrants” rather than “settlers,” “indentured servants” or “slaves.”

In “The Irish Way,” his acute and judicious account of the imprint of the Irish experience on American history, James R. Barrett suggests that these Irish were also the creators of an urban identity that became a model for millions of families and multitudes of ethnic groups working through difficult transitions. Barrett’s point is that the Irish became Irish-American faster than anyone had expected, and once established in cities, Irish-American policemen, teachers, priests, saloonkeepers and politicians shaped and directed the process of Americanization for subsequent waves of immigrants. When neighborhoods such as Lower Manhattan, the South Side of Chicago and Boston’s North End became factories manufacturing Americans, it was the Irish-Americans, Barrett suggests, who were the foremen and production engineers of the process.

From the Colonial point of view, the “Scotch-Irish” Ulstermen — whose ancestors had emigrated from the Scottish-English borderlands to northeast Ireland — had been strange enough, with their clannishness, religious zeal and disruptive ferocity. But at least their religion was exuberantly Protestant, and their land-hunger and ferocity toward Indians had seemed, to most, downright American. These Scotch-Irish were quickly ranked as “settlers,” Americans through and through, but the native Gaelic Irish immigrants coming ashore in 19th-century Boston, New York, Philadelphia and New Orleans had to fight their way past vicious prejudice and stereotyping.

The eastern cities, after all, were well-established, with social and racial hierarchies firmly set, when the mostly Catholic Irish arrived. The only urban space open to new arrivals — especially papists — was at the bottom. Feeling threatened by the number of Irish arriving, citizens proud to consider themselves Old Americans and Know Nothings began rigorously applying a “Paddy Irishman” stereotype to the newest arrivals. The cartoon character of that name drawn by Thomas Nast was awesomely poor and profoundly unsuited to American civilization. His jaw was apelike, his food was repulsive, his religion bizarre. Straight out of the bogs, P.I. was unaccustomed to shoes and modern life.

’The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City’ by James R. Barrett (The Penguin Press)

The message was clear: The native Irish were an indigestible mass of raw weirdness, possibly the ruin of the republic. Their foreignness would change the United States in horrible ways, and Americans would never be able penetrate their miasma of Irish backwardness.

But the Irish were quick to figure out how things worked in America, electoral democracy and machine politics especially. Most Irish immigrants could speak English, a huge advantage. Starting in the 1840s, Barrett argues, “lace curtain” Irish, as well as those of the working class, had a remarkable influence on American cities.

Later arrivals found the Irish established as the visible face of authority, especially in immigrant neighborhoods. They were policemen, schoolteachers and priests. Soon enough they were also bishops, bosses, mayors, state representatives and congressmen.

Ethnic hyphenation was a new phenomenon in the 1880s and ’90s. The Irish-American identity was the prototype of what became a wildly popular product, with dozens of imitations. As other groups — Italians, Slavs, East European Jews — arrived in the last decades of the 19th century, they encountered the same rancor the Irish had experienced. Ethnic variations of the nasty Paddy Irishman were applied — often by Irish-Americans, who might have known better, although no one ever does. Nonetheless, Barrett convincingly argues that the Irish-Americans “built and maintained relations with other ethnic and racial groups in the face of massive migration of other peoples to American cities.”

The seventh volume in the Penguin Press History of American Life series, “The Irish Way” is a penetrating, refreshingly unsentimental look at the role of the Irish in shaping and creating an urban culture. The Catholic Irish were not a founding people in America, but they were founders of a new way to be as American as the local Irish cop or Jimmy Cagney or JFK. From the perspective of later arrivals, Irish-Americans were definitive citizens, the only Americans the greenhorns knew — the Americans they aimed to become.

Behrens is the author, most recently, of “The O’Briens.”

the irish way

Becoming American in the Multiethnic City

By James R. Barrett

Penguin Press. 384 pp. $29.95